Found in medicine cabinets throughout the country for more than 150 years, petroleum jelly (also known as petrolatum or mineral oil) is a topical ointment used to treat everything from dry skin to nose bleeds to chest colds.
Originally packaged and sold as a cure-all, scientific studies on petroleum jelly have revealed that it really doesn’t measure up to the hype. Here are four reasons to stop using petroleum jelly on your skin – and six natural products you should use instead.
4 Reasons To Stop Using Petroleum Jelly
1. It’s Derived from Fossil Fuels
The crude version of petroleum was first discovered in 1859 on an oil rig. A paraffin-like substance, this thick and dark gunk would collect on pump joints during the oil extraction process. It needed to be scraped away from time to time to prevent the rig from malfunctioning. Some workers – who dubbed it “rod wax” – found it helped heal cuts and burns.
Though still a byproduct of oil, the petroleum jelly of today is distilled and rendered into a colorless, odorless gel. Use of petroleum jelly not only means you are slathering a petroleum byproduct on your skin, it also inadvertently supports the ecological and environmental devastation caused by oil drilling and the burning of fossil fuels.
2. Petroleum Jelly May be Carcinogenic
Petroleum jelly is composed of a mixture of hydrocarbons – a group of organic compounds made up of hydrogen and carbon. Though it is technically a natural substance, not all products derived from nature are healthy (see: formaldehyde).
Earning a health hazard rank of 4 by the EWG, petroleum jelly is highly susceptible to contamination of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Exposure to PAHs can occur through inhaling the incomplete burning of coal, oil, wood, and paraffin wax candles, but PAHs can also enter the body through contact with the skin. Once PAHs enter the body, they are stored in the kidneys, liver, and fat; bodily tissues change PAHs into many different substances – some of which are harmful to human health. Of the more than 100 kinds of PAHs, 15 are reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens.
The makers of petroleum jelly, claim that their product is refined, purified, and free of cancer-causing compounds. While the EU requires a full history of the refining process of petroleum jelly, along with proof the product is not a carcinogen, the US has no such regulatory requirement.
3. It Creates a Near Impenetrable Barrier on the Skin
Petroleum jelly can help counteract dryness because it is an occlusive agent. The thick gel creates a barrier that traps moisture within while providing protection against external factors like air, water, and bacteria.
This hydrophobic shield reduces transepidermal water loss by more than 98%. Its occlusive properties are too effective, however, since it doesn’t allow the skin to breathe. A case study published in 2000 found that babies treated with petroleum jelly to control systemic candidiasis – a type of fungal infection – experienced an increase in infection. Petroleum jelly created a breeding ground for yeast. Only when treatment was discontinued did the infants’ symptoms return to baseline.
4. Petroleum Jelly Doesn’t Nourish the Skin
Although petroleum jelly has been used in households for over a century to treat dry skin, but it doesn’t contain any medicinal or healing properties.
If the skin isn’t cleaned and moisturized first, slathering on some petroleum jelly won’t cure dry skin. In fact, regular use of petroleum jelly will stop the skin from producing its own moisture – creating an endless loop of reapplication.
While occlusives absolutely should have a place in skin care, they ought to be paired with a humectant (to draw water from the air to the skin) and an emollient (to rehydrate and soften skin).
And why bother with petroleum jelly when there are so many healthier options that will do the double work of healing and protecting the skin?
6 Healthy Alternatives to Petroleum Jelly
Here are some excellent occlusives that will help keep your skin hydrated too. To provide extra protection, resist the urge to rub them in – allow them to sit on top of the skin in a thin layer to form a protective seal. Try applying them just before bed so they can work their healing magic while you sleep.
1. Shea Butter
Extracted from the nuts of the Vitellaria paradoxa tree, shea butter has been used for centuries by the peoples of West Africa to nourish the skin in arid climes. It works as both a moisturizing emollient and a protective occlusive.
Shea butter is a complex fat that is enriched with calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, zinc, copper, potassium, fatty acids, and vitamin E. In addition to its anti-inflammatory properties, it also contains valuable antioxidants like gallic acid and several catechin compounds. This blend of fatty acids, nutrients, and phenolics helps hydrate dry skin. Though it is a butter, it melts when applied to the skin and forms a non-greasy and breathable barrier against the elements.
2. Cocoa Butter
Bolstered by a wonderful chocolaty scent, cocoa butter is another ointment that doubles as an emollient and an occlusive.
It is composed of a wealth of fatty acids and antioxidants, including catechins, gallic acid, anthocyanidins, and proanthocyanidins, which provide an anti-aging and anti-inflammatory effect on the skin. This unique mix of polyphenols has been shown to promote skin tone, elasticity, and collagen production. With a melting point that sits just below skin temperature, cocoa butter forms a thin barrier that protects as it heals.
3. Mango Butter
Mango butter is derived from the fatty kernels found within the mango stone. Mango kernels are especially abundant in palmitic, stearic, and oleic acids, with smaller amounts of lauric, myristic, and omega-3 fatty acids. Its high moisture content means it is deeply hydrating when used on the skin, and because it melts at 86°F it will provide a nice seal on the dermis.
With a similar texture and chemical composition as cocoa butter, mango butter is considered to be an excellent alternative.
4. Colloidal Oatmeal
Finely ground from whole dehulled oat grain, colloidal oatmeal provides gentle cleansing, broad moisturization, and is incredibly soothing when applied to dry, irritated skin. It contains vitamin E, fatty acids, antioxidants, and polysaccharides that heal the skin while calming inflammation and smoothing fine lines and wrinkles.
When added to a liquid, the fine particles of colloidal oatmeal form a viscous occlusive barrier on the skin. The high amount of starches and sugars found in oats allows them to hold water, essentially creating a second skin that is both hydrating and protective.
5. Comfrey Root
Long used medicinally, the comfrey plant (Symphytum officinale) possesses plenty of beneficial properties for the skin.
The roots, in particular, contain small amounts of allantoin – a powerful organic compound that soothes and heals the dermis. Akin to a natural peel, it also has keratolytic properties that aid in shedding the outer layer of the skin while boosting healthy tissue formation.
Produced by worker bees to preserve their honey stores and protect offspring within the honeycomb, beeswax is a natural marvel when it comes to skin care.
A complex substance containing more than 300 elements, beeswax is primarily composed of monoesters, diesters, fatty acids, and hydrocarbons. Often used as a key ingredient in lip balms, hand creams, and moisturizers, beeswax is a humectant that draws water out of the air and into the skin.
Beeswax is also an occlusive agent that forms a protective, but breathable, barrier on the skin that won’t clog pores. When compared with commercial barrier creams, beeswax was deemed superior in healing and conditioning the skin by a factor of 98%.